Bridging the gap for women in Stem industries

There is a clear rise in the rate of women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) majors in the GCC. In 2015, women in the GCC comprised as much as 60 per cent of engineering students in some universities, compared with 30 per cent in the United States and Europe, according to numbers issued by the Unesco. Despite these positive indicators, there remains a clear gap in the numbers of women who obtain an education in Stem subjects and those who continue in career paths within those fields. Furthermore, recent studies show that female students in Stem programmes tend to switch to other majors before they complete their degrees, and that there is a clear trend of female graduates who are not practising in their fields of study. This gap can be attributed to sociocultural factors within the GCC as well as barriers to entry in Stem higher education and in Stem industries, which must be addressed if we want to achieve gender balance in the workforce.

In 2014, women in the GCC had a significantly lower average of labour participation in Stem fields compared with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average.

The OECD average for female labour participation was 51 per cent, while the UAE’s average was only 20 per cent. The highest in the GCC was Qatar’s average — 33 per cent, which was still significantly low in comparison. According to the 2014 WEF Global Gender Gap Index, 46 per cent of UAE graduates in Stem are women. These figures show that our issue is not getting women to study Stem subjects, but rather in getting them to join the Stem workforce afterwards.

However, other research clarifies that there is also a considerable number of female students who decide to change their areas of study from Stem subjects to other fields during the course of their education as well.

Close examination is needed into the reasons driving female students to switch from a Stem to a non-Stem programme, and why it is, upon graduation, that those women that remain in them choose to pursue careers vastly different from their choice of study.

When a female student joins a Stem programme, enthusiastic to learn and pursue a career in that field, she comes across what I find a fundamental issue in higher education in the region: a lack of female participation in higher education faculty members.

There aren’t enough female faculty members who are leading seminars, instructing courses and lab work, leading study groups etc. which enables the misconception that these fields are more suitable for male students. We need more female professors and instructors that act as role models in universities and colleges to change these false views.

Another issue that females face in this region is that they are being placed into a cultural ‘mould’. Although there have been tremendous efforts to drive more females towards Stem studies, women in the GCC are being driven away from careers in related-fields and towards more “socially acceptable” choices. Because Stem fields are male-dominated, women feel pressured by family members and friends to find more gender-segregated work environments with fewer interactions with males.

Not to mention that there is societal pressure for women to focus on household responsibilities and child bearing, which also discourages them from pursuing those careers. On the other hand, the increasing number of women in the public sector is attracting more females in that direction, creating the notion that the public sector is an ideal employer for them, and their preferred career path.

Another important factor to consider is lack of self-confidence. A study by Stanford University showed female engineering students perform just as well as men do, but they lack confidence in their skill-set to pursue a career in engineering. Female students and graduates often feel like they don’t have what it takes to join the workforce and opt out of the field. Study groups and mentorship programmes can definitely help to boost self-confidence within higher education.

In terms of Stem industries and educational programmes, there is a lack of targeted recruitment efforts to encourage women to join these. In the workplace, we need corporate initiatives to make Stem industries more female-friendly and to help more women integrate into these male-dominated fields. In terms of higher education, Stem programmes are not always catered towards female motivational drivers. The University of California, Berkeley, proposes making the content of Stem studies more societally meaningful, as a motivational factor to increase female participation. This suggestion comes from research showing that women are drawn towards making positive changes and finding solutions to local and global challenges. If universities were to include these motivational factors in their curricula, they could attract larger female participation.

We can safely say that the gender gap in Stem studies in the UAE is closing slowly — but surely. However, we need to put more effort into closing this gap in the workplace. In the UAE, we are fortunate to have rising female role models who are breaking boundaries, such as Mariam Al Mansouri, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot, or Aisha Al Marzouqi, the country’s first woman crane-operator at Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi.

However, there’s room for us to highlight and cultivate more female role models. By enhancing female participation in teaching Stem subjects, particularly at the higher education level, creating new targeted motivational factors, as well as breaking barriers to entry into various Stem industries, we can attempt to close this gap once and for all.

Dr. Richard T. Schoephoerster is Dean of the College of Engineering at American University of Sharjah (AUS).

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